Inspiring T-shirt transcends everyday moral struggle

Few things spark my internal moral struggle more than the beggar on the side of the road.

When I was a young boy, my mom took us into NYC and gave us each $10 to spend. That was a crazy amount of money for a little kid to be working with, and my mind raced with the possibilities of what I should buy. A bootleg VHS of “Goonies?” Eh. The Yankees? Maybe.

As the day progressed, nothing seemed to strike my fancy. It’s possible my expectations were simply too high; even as a kid I could recognize that everything being sold on the street was junk. As we walked along, we approached a table where a woman was collecting money for the homeless in an empty water container. Something just felt completely right about investing my money there, and my decision was immediately justified by the woman’s over-the-top reaction. My mom was proud.

Since then, I’ve always had a soft spot for the person begging for cash. Although the empathy has remained, as I’ve grown older my naïveté has dwindled. God only knows where my $10 went that day. Hopefully to the homeless, although it just as well may have gone towards a complex underground scheme to assassinate a foreign dignitary, in which case … sorry, everyone.

That feeling of confusion resurfaces every time I encounter a beggar at a red light, which happens fairly often these days, unfortunately. On one hand, I am reminded of the Gospel message in which Jesus commands us to take care of the least of our brothers. On the other hand, is this money going towards food, drugs, or what? We are called for charity, yes, but we are also called to be stewards of where our money goes. On the other, other hand, man, I am busy. I can’t be giving money away AND following its path, ya’ know? You want to buy crack instead of a cinnamon roll? I’m sorry, that one’s on you.

Sometimes the beggar himself helps sway my decision. An old man in ratty clothes standing in the 100-plus-degree heat with a sign that reads “VET” usually gets me to roll down the ol’ window. A dude younger than me wearing decent clothes holding a sign that reads “Need $ to start my new company”—exactly what I encountered at the corner of 83rd and Union Hills a few weeks ago—usually gets me to roll my eyes. If Begging, L.L.C. goes public one day, color me stupid.

Last weekend something happened that, quite surprisingly, rid me of all these paradoxical notions. We were on our way to a social function for my wife’s job. We exited the 51 on Cactus and as we waited at the light, a man slowly approached my car. My wife, looking but not staring, said, “Oh … my … gosh,” then turned away to hide her laughter. As he came into view, it was revealed the man was wearing a T-shirt that read, between Greco-Roman columns, “Behold: Fartacus.” My decision was made. I rolled down the window and gave him some change.

I regretted not giving him more. I’m not even sure now if he was begging; he may have just been walking around. It seems all of my inner struggles are diffused when you appeal to my dumb, immature, sense of humor. 

I don’t know if there’s a lesson in here or what. I really just wanted to tell everyone that this happened. Thank you.

Note: This column appears in the 7/19 issue of The Glendale Star and the 7/20 issue of the Peoria Times.


Dave Brigham said…
Love this! When I worked in Boston years ago, I faced many of the same moral struggles. I gave a lot to people who probably spent it on Ripple or heroin cut with Borax. But the people who always got my money were those who worked a little harder: dressing up as a priest, for example, and shaking a tambourine. Or pretending to be bat-shit crazy until you dropped a quarter in their hat and then politely saying, "Hey, thanks man."
mkenny59 said…
Hey, thanks, Dave! I, too, love the crazy followed by cordial gratitude. I remember that happening often while walking through New Brunswick, NJ ... must be an east coast thing.